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Megan Smolenyak
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Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (yes, that's her real name) is a real life history detective who loves to solve mysteries. You might have spotted Megan or her handiwork on Top Chef, Who Do You Think You Are?, Finding Your Roots, Faces of America, Good Morning America, the Today Show, The Early Show, CNN, PBS, BBC and NPR.

She's the author of 6 books, including Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing and Who Do You Think You Are? (companion to the TV series) and conducts forensic research for the Army, coroners, NCIS and the FBI.

Among her “greatest hits” are:

* Discovering Michelle Obama’s roots (as featured on front page of NYT)

* Celebrity roots as seen on assorted TV shows (e.g., Martha Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Brooke Shields, Cory Booker, Susan Sarandon, Emmitt Smith, Richard Blais, etc.) and in her writings (e.g., Betty White, Katy Perry, Joe Biden, Beyonce, Julia Roberts, Josh Groban, Pink, Prince, Jon Stewart, Bruno Mars, etc.)

* Tracing Barack Obama’s roots to Moneygall, Co. Offaly, Ireland

* Correcting history by revealing the true story of Annie Moore, the first immigrant through Ellis Island (as featured on front page of NYT)

* Providing a decade of forensic consulting to the U.S. Army to locate thousands of family members of soldiers still unaccounted for from WWI, WWII, Korea and Southeast Asia

* Using her sleuthing skills to help coroners and medical examiners locate the next of kin for unclaimed persons

Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, megansmolenyak.com, or HonoringOurAncestors.

Entries by Megan Smolenyak

Genealogy on TV: 28 Celebrities and Counting

(3) Comments | Posted June 5, 2014 | 9:47 AM

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A pair of Valeries: Valerie Bertinelli tapes for Who Do You Think You Are? in London and Senior Advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, learns about her heritage in Finding Your Roots
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If you're...

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Consider Donating Your War Letters for Memorial Day

(0) Comments | Posted May 22, 2014 | 9:22 AM

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letter to Dad in Vietnam

As Memorial Day approaches, our thoughts naturally turn to those who have served in the military over the years and generations. Memorial Day is, of course, about remembering their sacrifices, but there's something else you can do no...

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Roots Recipe for Tonight Show Host Jimmy Fallon

(0) Comments | Posted February 10, 2014 | 11:14 AM

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Not yet forty, Jimmy Fallon already has an impressive history to look back on. Between Saturday Night Live and hosting Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, he's logged more than a decade on air, and is now primed for his take over of The...

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They Say It's Your Birthday -- But It's Not

(0) Comments | Posted December 31, 2013 | 9:03 AM

Annie Moore with her brothers Anthony (l) and Philip (r) at Ellis Island


A hundred and twenty-two years ago, on Jan. 1, 1892, Ellis Island opened its doors and welcomed its first immigrant, Annie Moore of Ireland. As the first to arrive, Annie was briefly famous making headline...

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A Chat with Jim Piddock about HBO's Binge-worthy Family Tree

(0) Comments | Posted October 28, 2013 | 8:30 AM

Family Tree outtake of Mr. Pfister, portrayed by Jim Piddock


I'm generally not the kind who watches TV shows more than once, but recently made an exception when I lost myself in the first season of Family Tree (available on DVD with a fun assortment of bonus features on October 29th). Though I followed the series week by week earlier this year during its first airing on HBO, I found myself even more glued to the screen the second time around. This documentary-style, comedy series was conjured up by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock (as it happens, both history buffs) over a lunch spent discussing Guest's dabbling in the world of genealogy.

During a recent chat with Piddock, who co-writes and produces Family Tree with Guest, he explained that they liked the idea of a young, impressionable person searching for who he is, and dreamed up a 30-year-old Londoner named Tom Chadwick, a down-on-his-luck, but amiable fellow portrayed by Chris O'Dowd. O'Dowd was surrounded by a gently wacky cast of characters played by Guest and Piddock themselves, as well as Nina Conti, Tom Bennett, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean, Carrie Aizley, Fred Willard, and Amy Seimetz - several of whose names are very familiar to fans of classic Guest films such as Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Triggered by the inheritance of a box of memorabilia from a great-aunt, Chadwick embarks on a quest to find himself by exploring his family history, a journey that propels him into a series of peculiar encounters around England and across the pond in California. The end result is a show that's simultaneously charming and twisted, and both absurd and believable.

Seeking to learn more about this series I'm jonesing for more of, I peppered Jim Piddock with questions he was kind enough to indulge.

Q: Is the way this was written - with scenes mapped out in detail, but actors left to improvise the dialogue - an approach you've used a lot in the past and why was it used for Family Tree?

A: "All of Chris's films have been done that way. He and Eugene Levy would write the outlines and character backgrounds, and then the actors are given that. They have all this ammunition and then they come on the day and make it their own so that it has a natural feel about it. It's not as if we don't know where we're going. We know exactly where we're going in terms of the scene, but it's how we do it. It's almost like having a google map holiday or journey planned out in detail, but then you let the actors drive the vehicle or take the train or whatever it is. So it's not as if we have massive surprises on our hands. The story is very clearly worked out, but how you get there is fun and sometimes detours will come up that are genuinely innovative for us and not anything we planned. It's a specific kind of actor that can work this way and obviously Chris has built up a troupe over the years in the films and we pulled on that and found a lot of new people, too."

Q: Do you have personal experience working on your own family history and are any of the ancestors discovered in the show based on anyone's actual ancestors?

A: "Well, my brother's done an enormous amount. I haven't. Having a very ordinary sort of upbringing, I discovered in my teens that the generation before my father was all involved in show business, and in episode two of Family Tree, I quite strongly draw from my family background. Even my grandfather's name was Harry and worked in theaters in Brighton, so there was a bit there. I know a certain amount, and bizarrely - about six months after we wrote Family Tree - my brother was left a box of family mementoes and pictures by an aunt he met once before. It was all so bizarre. It was exactly what we'd written. Really strange.

So there's a lot of real stuff, and there's also a lot of myth. I'm just as interested in the family myths, too - whether they're true or not. They're intriguing. I mean the whole thing about my grandfather having worked with Charlie Chaplin in the early days before Chaplin went to America and then being offered a contract and his not taking it because his father said there's no future in show business. I love all this kind of stuff. Whether it's all true or not, I don't know, but it doesn't really matter to me. It's good story."

Q: Did you consult with any genealogists because there's an authenticity there - for instance, the way Tom Chadwick always sees himself in what he believes to be true of his ancestors.

A: "Chris and I met with some genealogists in London, but the idea of Chris O'Dowd always seeing himself in the ancestors was more just a creative decision. We thought it was funny that he was impressionable, and without being ridiculous, we liked that idea that he would always get excited and immediately see that he was either Native American or Jewish or whatever it was. But again, it's a funny concept because we all do that, we all want to believe something, and then, we're either let down or we're sort of excited by it. Again, it's all part of wanting to belong, wanting to find your identity, and so you'll believe anything. It's why fortune tellers are so successful because they tell you things you want to hear. I think Stephen Fry on Who Do You Think You Are? said that genealogy is, I can't remember the exact phrase, but it was something of a form of astrology, and there's a sort of parallel there, except it's based more on fact and astrology is a more speculative science."

Q: Why is your character, Mr. Pfister, always smelling everything?

A: (laughing) "It's partly my own character trait. I had lunch yesterday with a wonderful British actor, Richard E. Grant, and when our food came, he literally bent down and smelled the food in a way that even Mr. Pfister would have been loathe to do. I had heard that this was also a trait of his and we just started laughing because we both do it. I mean I smell lots of things and I think it's funny, it's stupid, and it's completely good when it's a non sequitur. There was one sequence when we improvised where Chris Guest told me I actually smelt four different things, including Chris O'Dowd."

Q: You have a number of shows within the show - knock-off TV series like Move Along, Please. Why is that?

A: "Chris Guest and I are both amused by bad 1970s British sitcoms, so we created a couple of those. Although it has to be said that Move Along, Please was so good in terms of casting that it could probably be done as a sort of camp, retrospective series today. And then the others ones, we wanted to do a sort of parody of The Tudors, the kind of overblown historical drama that's essentially just sex and violence. And then we liked the idea of doing a show where they'd completely run out of Sherlock Holmes ideas so they were doing them in space. So that came from that."

Q: What's up with all the strange inventions - the shoe warmer, flavored flushes, etc.?

A: "That was a character thing we wanted to give the father - that he fancied himself as an inventor and was completely useless. Actually, that is my - it's hard to know what relative it would be - my step-grandmother's second husband - who I met a few times was this guy who kept inventing things. My half-aunt said that when they were children, the lights would always be flickering because the electricity was driven by a windmill. And he called the whole family to a conference in Brighton and sat them down, I think in a hotel room, and said, "I have come up with the invention that will make this family rich for centuries to come," and he said, "Here's a piece of paper and this is a sheet of carbon and you put it between this piece of paper and this other, and look, as I write, it comes through on the other piece of paper." We're talking about the 1950s so there was this horrible silence as they all looked at him and said, "Nigel, that's actually just carbon . . . it's been done." And he said, "What are you talking about?" But he was a man who seriously thought he had come up with this extraordinary thing. Those types of things are interesting and funny to me."

Q: I've said before that Family Tree was made for DVD because it's so layered. There are countless sly details that reward the viewer for paying attention or watching a second time, and I can't wait for the next season.

A: "Thank you. I've always said that Chris's comedy is built for endurance, not speed. His films never did a massive box office immediately, but they grew in reputation and stature by the year so now, people will still quote the films ten, fifteen, twenty years later and remember them when most other films are forgotten. And I do believe that because this series is so detailed, so layered, and so subtle, that people will enjoy multiple viewings as they have Best in Show and other films, and I think it will only grow in...

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DNA Stories: Did She Marry Her Cousin? (VIDEO)

(4) Comments | Posted September 18, 2013 | 12:58 PM


Though genetic genealogy has been around for more than a decade, the sight of celebrities swabbing their cheeks on TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots has undoubtedly contributed to its growing popularity. But if you're new to it - and sometimes even if you're not - it can be a little confusing. For that reason, I've been sharing a series of "DNA Stories" videos featuring the experiences of real life people and how they've used DNA testing to tackle their personal history mysteries (see below for links if you've missed them). Well, now it's my turn.

As a Smolenyak who married another Smolenyak (and a professional genealogist to boot), I am constantly asked whether I married my cousin. Check out the video above to see how I used Y-DNA tests to solve this riddle.

A Tale of Two Fathers

Genetic Family Reunion: DNA Reveals Alex Haley's Scottish Roots

A Tale of Two...

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DNA Stories: A Tale of Two Fathers (VIDEO)

(6) Comments | Posted August 19, 2013 | 9:44 AM


I know that many of my fellow genealogists are hoping that the current season of Who Do You Think You Are? will inject DNA into the mystery-solving mix, but until that happens, here's a story to tide us over. Genetic testing is a tremendous addition to our arsenal of tools to tackle family history riddles, and this is one of my favorite examples of how simple and effective it can be.

Bob Zins grew up believing that the man who raised him wasn't his father, but was that really true? Would DNA testing confirm or disprove the whispered tales? See how he used Y-DNA testing to get an answer long after his maybe-father passed...

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5 Reasons HBO Needs to Renew Family Tree

(16) Comments | Posted August 8, 2013 | 3:42 PM

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HBO is apparently on the fence about renewing Family Tree, the mockumentary series dreamed up by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock. It may be that they're waiting to see how the first season performs in the U.K. where it's now airing on...

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Genetic Family Reunion: DNA Reveals Alex Haley's Scottish Roots (VIDEO)

(2) Comments | Posted July 26, 2013 | 10:56 AM


Genetic genealogy has been around for more than a dozen years, but has exploded in popularity over the last few. We're remarkably fortunate to live at a time when we can peek into the past by simply swabbing the inside of a cheek or spitting into a tube.

For some, such as adoptees, this is the very recent past, and for others, such as Alex Haley of Roots fame, DNA testing can reveal information from the distant past that the paper trail never could. Though Mr. Haley is no longer with us, his nephew, Chris Haley, shares his passion for genealogy, so was game to swab for history's sake.

Watch as he meets his unexpected Scottish cousin, June Baff Black, for the first time. June, it turns out, learned about genetic testing by watching an episode of the U.K. Who Do You Think You Are? celebrity roots series. She asked for a DNA kit for Christmas, and got more than she bargained...

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Kelly Clarkson In Tears over Link between Ancestor's Sacrifice and President Obama's Inauguration

(13) Comments | Posted July 15, 2013 | 10:11 AM

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When Kelly Clarkson sang the phrase "land where my fathers died" from My Country,'Tis of Thee at President Obama's second inauguration, little did she know that she was paying homage to her own ancestor, Isaiah Rose.

In the

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DNA Stories: A Tale of Two Sisters (VIDEO)

(0) Comments | Posted July 2, 2013 | 4:10 PM


If you're one of the many who's curious about all the cheek-swabbing that seems to be going on in genealogy-related TV shows ranging from HBO's Family Tree to PBS's Finding Your Roots and TLC's Who Do You Think You Are?, you might want to watch this video to learn more.

Genealogists use three main types of DNA tests to peek into the past -- Y-DNA, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and autosomal DNA. This particular video features mtDNA which focuses on the direct maternal line of your family tree. Whether you're male or female, you got your mtDNA from your mother, who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother, and so on. So every one of us is a living representative of that branch.

A Tale of Two Sisters shows how genetic genealogist Bill Hurst made clever use of this kind of DNA testing to solve a long-standing history mystery in his family. If you find yourself getting bit by the genealogy bug, it might be worth pondering whether this same approach could help knock down a brick wall or two in your own...

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Who Do You Think You Are? Celebrities Announced

(18) Comments | Posted June 26, 2013 | 1:11 PM

Genealogists and non-genealogists alike are rejoicing that TLC has announced the season line-up for Who Do You Think You Are?, the popular celebrity roots series it rescued after NBC dropped the show. The series returns on July 23rd.

Christina Applegate, Kelly Clarkson, Cindy Crawford, Zooey Deschanel, Chelsea Handler, Chris O'Donnell,...

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Lost and Found for Humans

(0) Comments | Posted June 15, 2013 | 3:09 PM

As much as I love traditional genealogy, I also enjoy playing at the fringes to discover new applications for our research skills, and that's how I first tripped into the world of unclaimed persons. If you're not familiar with this concept, it's essentially "lost and found," but for human beings,...

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A Memorial Day Tribute to Dad for his Service in Vietnam

(3) Comments | Posted May 23, 2013 | 5:32 PM

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My dad is the understated, modest type who's reluctant to talk about his service in Vietnam. In fact, he will likely be irritated with me when he sees this, but after years of writing assorted Memorial and Veterans Day tributes about others,...

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Celebrity Roots Series "Who Do You Think You Are?" Returns

(46) Comments | Posted May 21, 2013 | 5:24 PM

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Good news for all those who mourned the cancellation of the American version of Who Do You Think You Are?, the popular celebrity roots series that's enjoyed success around the globe. It's coming back!

TLC picked up the show and has announced...

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HBO's Family Tree First of Four Genealogy Series to Air in U.S.

(9) Comments | Posted May 2, 2013 | 10:29 AM

Though there's been a bit of a vacuum in genealogical programming in the U.S. over the last year or so, that's happily about to change. First up is Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock's mockumentary series, Family Tree (HBO, May 12th, 10:30 p.m.), starring Chris O'Dowd as Tom Chadwick. Having lost...

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10 Things You Didn't Know About Jon Hamm's Roots

(7) Comments | Posted April 8, 2013 | 5:13 PM

In AMC's Mad Men, Don Draper's true origins were something of a mystery until he was revealed to be Richard "Dick" Whitman, a fellow who had assumed the identity of an officer he had served with in the Korean War. The origins of Jon Hamm, who portrays Draper, are less...

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Family Tree Mockumentary Series Coming to HBO & BBC

(0) Comments | Posted March 19, 2013 | 9:36 AM

You know you've arrived when you've been mocked by Christopher Guest. Guest, who has a gift for putting peculiar subcultures under a microscope (who wasn't captivated by the worlds of community theater in Waiting for Guffman and competitive dog shows in Best in Show?), has set his sights on genealogy...

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Letter to Ireland Answered -- 28 Years Later

(36) Comments | Posted March 5, 2013 | 2:41 PM

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Not long ago, I received a response to a letter I wrote to a stranger in Ireland -- in 1984. Making the experience more peculiar still is the fact that the gentleman I contacted had passed away in 1990. Perhaps I should...

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Hey, Jon Stewart, Your Roots Are Showing

(8) Comments | Posted February 25, 2013 | 3:39 PM

Having been raised in the days of the traditional news format (my sister and I used to drift off to sleep with a nightly exchange of, "Good night, Chet. Good night, David."), it's slightly ironic that one of my favorite sources today is arguably the best-known "fake news" anchor in...

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